Effective Ways to Challenge Chronicity Thoughts

How much time do you spend thinking about your pain or illness? Does it consume most of your day? Just a little bit? I remember the time when I was spending a lot of time thinking about being in pain, and wondering “why me” or what my life would be like going forward etc. These are often referred to as chronicity thoughts. Happily, this was the past for me and is not my experience anymore. I know that many of you may be having this as your current experience though, so I wanted to take sometime to talk about it.

As human beings, we spend a lot of time thinking.

First of all, I want to say that this is a totally normal experience for anyone with chronic pain or a chronic illness. Our minds are literally trying to help us (or they think they are trying to help us, which is what they evolved to do). The problem is, this kind of constant thinking about pain makes our lives worse, not better. There are three types of common chronicity thoughts: (1) ruminating about being in pain/sick – I keep thinking about it, it’s all I can think about because it hurts; (2) magnifying our pain/illness – it will get worse, something terrible is going to happen; and (3) thoughts of helplessness – nothing I do makes it better, nothing I can do will ever make it better.

Are your thoughts making your life better, worse, or the same?

If you went to a doctor (Western or functional) or a therapist, they’d likely assess this with a tool called The Pain Catastrophizing Scale (PCS). My commentary is that I don’t like the name because “catastrophizing” sometimes has the connotation that it’s all in your head, but that’s not what it means in this case – it’s really referring to chronicity thoughts. The questions on the scale include:

  • I worry all the time about whether the pain will end
  • I feel I can’t go on
  • It’s terrible and I never think it’s going to get any better.
  • I wonder whether something serious will happen.
  • and so (there are 13 questions total, and you self-report on a scale of 0-4 for each question, with 0 meaning not at all and 4 meaning all the time.)

So what can we do about all these chronicity thoughts? First, I will always suggest that working with a therapist is the way to go. Remember this blog is educational and not mental health/medical advice. We all have unique situations and unique thoughts, so having someone you can work with one-on-one (or in a small group) is always the way to go. I will let you know about a few different approaches. First, let’s talk about classic Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approach, where we challenge thoughts.

  • Notice and name the thought: I’m having the thought that “It’s terrible and I never think it’s going to get any better.”
  • Review evidence for and against the thought: For might include things like, it occurs frequently, has high intensity, a doctor’s prognosis, etc. Against might be things like, there are times of day when I don’t notice it or it’s less intense or my doctor said with this medication or these lifestyle changes it will improve
  • Replace the thought with a more accurate one: This doesn’t mean being optimistic or denying anything that’s true. Instead it’s incorporating the evidence against the thought (not just for the thought which is what we tend to do). So a different thought might be: “It’s really unpleasant right now, but it might not always be this bad/constant.” (You choose a thought that works for you, this is just what might work for me.)

As a therapist, I am well-trained in CBT but I prefer to use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) on myself and with clients, especially those with chronic pain/illness. There is no step-by-step way to challenge thoughts in ACT because we don’t challenge them, but here’s now I might work with them.

  • Contact the present moment: ground myself my noticing and acknowledging my thoughts and feelings, while noticing what I can touch, taste, smell, hear, and see. (Here’s a guided version of this).
  • Use my noticing self: the part of me that notices everything and even notices my noticing. And the similar part of me that can put myself in my shoes on the days when my pain is less. (Here’s a guided version of how to learn to do this).
  • Creating distance between myself and my thoughts: This might be noticing and naming the thought. It might be reminding myself that my brain is just trying to help me and saying “thank you mind.” This might be just watching my thoughts come and stay and go in their own time (guided version of this one is here).
  • Accepting my experiences: particularly physical and emotional pain that I might be going through. This could be actual sensations or emotions such as sadness or anxiety. For this I often just observe what the sensation/emotion looks like, where it is in my body, and so on. Then I send my breathe into the part of my body I feel it most intensely. Then I make some room for it, noticing that my body is bigger than it. Finally, I just allow it to be there without consuming me. (Guided version here).
  • I connect with my values: what qualities of being are important to me? I know that compassion (for myself and others) is a big one that is often helpful in moments of pain, sadness, anxiety, etc. (Here’s an exercise on connecting with your values.)
  • Taking an action to live by my values: So if we’re going with my above example/value than it might be doing some self-compassion work. (Here’s a guided practice). It could also be setting goals to make some of those lifestyle changes that might help. It doesn’t matter what the action is as long as it is rooted in your values. (podcast episode on how to do this available here).

So that’s it. A bunch of different ways to work with your chronicity thoughts so that hopefully you can improve your life and keep making the most of it!

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My Experience at the World Pain Summit ’21, Part 2

If you read last week’s blog post then you know that I recently attended the World Pain Summit, put on by the Alberta Pain Society. I did this as both an allied healthcare practitioner (as a clinical counsellor) and as a person with lived experience. By the way, this event is apparently always free to people with lived experience, so keep an eye out for it next year. The summit was 3 days and had so much info, that this is going to be part 2 of a 3-part post, and focuses on the content of Day 2. Without further ado, here’s what I learned.

How Living with a Dog Can Improve Quality of Life and Well-Being in People with Persistent Pain. The first bit of interesting info was a bit of an aside – only 1% of the curricula for healthcare professionals is on pain, which means if your doctor doesn’t understand (and isn’t attending these kinds of conferences) that is likely why (definitely not an excuse – all healthcare professionals should be attending conferences/summits/etc throughout their careers). The most interesting parts of this session was the statistics on dog/pet owners (cats and other kinds of pets count):

  • they report lower pain
  • less depression and anxiety and loneliness – i.e., better mental health
  • improved well-being and meaning/purpose in life

Having a pet also gives you a non-judgmental listener whom you can talk to, and petting an animal releases oxytocin in our brains, which has a calming effect. Yay for pets!

This is my parents’ dog, Beau.

Is Supported Pain Self-Management Your First Choice or Last Resort?: 5 Key Coaching Support Skills. This was present by Pete Moore, a person with lived experience, who wrote a book on the subject. The 5 key skills he talked about were: (1) goal setting and action planning; (2) practicing daily activities – I know ADLs can be hard for some people but they are important to well-being; (3) problem solving; (4) keeping active, moving, including stretching and exercise; and (5) knowing what to do if you have a set-back (i.e., planning for that in advance). Much of this involves having a support team, pacing, prioritizing, being patient with yourself, learning relaxation skills, tracking your progress, and resilience.

Pete Moore presented this cycle, which really resonated with me and probably many others.

How a Pain Doctor is Using Social Media to Spread Knowledge About Chronic Pain. This was a session more for healthcare professionals on how to start a YouTube channel (and why they should). But some interesting factors for Spoonies: the current quality of medical information on YouTube is very low, so please be careful and look for trusted sources (i.e., trained healthcare professionals in different areas).

My YouTube channel is for meditations (with an emphasis on pain and illness).
Let me know if I should include other psychoeducational content and skills.

Trauma, Illness, and Healing – Dr. Gabor Mate’s keynote. I’ve written a ton about Dr. Mate’s work in the past, and there was obviously some repeat in content about trauma, childhood abuse, insecure attachments and stress and their relationship to chronic pain and illness. A couple of things I will share:

  • mind body practices (like yoga) should be included in chronic pain treatment
  • a lot of back pain is associated with psychoemotional stress (tension, stress, trauma)
  • Go to a physician for what they can do (prescribe medications, perform surgery, etc.) and find other practitioners to help you with the other parts of treatment
  • diagnoses are descriptions, not explanations
  • psychological and spiritual support is important

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Mate’s work, check out When the Body Says No (I also did a post about the book awhile back).

Dr. Gabor Mate is world leading expert on the trauma-stress interaction with illness.
Image from: https://californiahealthline.org/news/addiction-rooted-in-childhood-trauma-says-prominent-specialist/

Challenging Chronicity Thoughts: Words Matter. So this was a mental health session, if the title isn’t clear! It emphasized that psychological factors are an important component of pain experience and are the most powerful psychological predictor of adverse health and mental health outcomes associated with pain – they even affect our treatment responses to medications, injections, physical therapy, and most other treatments. Recovery is not just about talking (to a therapist), needs and activity but also about ways of thinking. Two important notes for my fellow Spoonies: (1) pain is perceived by your brain (all in your head) but it is real; and (2) the word pain takes you right to thinking about/feeling pain (check out this podcast episode I did on externalizing language and pain/illness).

Chronicity thoughts are about way more than language. I highly recommend seeking therapy if you find you think about your illness/pain a lot.

Next week I’ll bring you a post on the information from the final day of the summit. I hope that you find some of this helpful when thinking about illness and well-being. Keep making the most of it everyone!

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Positive Psychology and Physical Illness

Before everyone starts hating on positive psychology, I’m going to give you a bit of a break down of it. As some of you know, I’m doing my Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology so I’m learning a lot about the different theories of counselling. Though I want to take an integrative approach in my practice, positive psychology is something that interests me. Here’s why:

  • the focus is on strengths, positive experiences, positive emotions (i.e., what’s good in life, not just what’s bad)
  • optimism and gratitude are encouraged (however, if you’re not an optimist then you shouldn’t be coerced into being one)
  • unrealistic optimism isn’t healthy, and neither is too much pessimism
  • emphasis on finding meaning in life and being authentic as it will lead to less stress and anxiety
  • there needs to be balance between positive and negative feelings and experiences
  • you can learn to shift your perspective from negativity to positivity
  • focus is finding ways to foster hope in your life
Word-ArtImage from: https://condorperformance.com/positive-psychology/

So what does this have to do with physical illness. Well, if it isn’t obvious already, positive psychology can help us shift our view of our illness(es) from being something that is terrible and completely disruptive of our lives, to something that we can draw strength and resilience from. Regardless of whether we are sick or healthy, we all have strengths (I would say mine are perseverance, optimism, and communication). We all still experience good things (fun times with friends and family for example), and positive emotions (unless you’re truly unhappy 100% of the time, you do experience happiness, love, contentment, etc.). This doesn’t mean we can’t have bad days or be unhappy, it means that we can choose to acknowledge the good days and the good things that happen as well.

XD0OdKzwQF2hBF41kefPEQEngaging in self-care kind of goes hand-in-hand with positive psychology.

I like the idea of meaning making (if you read my post on existentialism you’ll know this about me). So my original goal was to make movies and entertain. As my health deteriorated, I sought out new meaning and found that I want to help and inspire people (thus this blog, my podcast, and my new degree). The other part of this is finding ways to foster hope. I think that for people who are very sick, finding hope is difficult. I volunteer at a crisis text line for kids and teens. One of the articles I often send texters is on fostering hope. Here are some suggestions from the article: positive thinking, focusing on the future (and changes that will happen), look at the big picture rather than the details that are easy to focus on, remember your successes (however small – did you go for a walk around the block today? that’s a success), be patient with yourself because you’re doing the best you can, and reach out for support when necessary.

WsZ19goHSlyhimnYpy5C9QPursuing more education was an important step in finding my new life meanings.

Is positive psychology the only way to improve your mental health when you have a physical illness? Certainly not, but hopefully this was some food for thought.

Also, in case you haven’t heard, I have a podcast! It’s call Chronically Living and how to make the most of it. It’s available on Apple Podcasts! Check it out and please leave me a rating and review!

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Reference:

https://kidshelpphone.ca/get-info/8-ways-foster-hope-your-daily-life